Ancient Faith Continued – A series of reflections about the meaning of Tradition in the life of the church today. Read more about the series here.
Blessed is she who placed her pure mouth on the lips
of that One, from whose fire, the Seraphim of fire hide themselves.
Blessed is she who nourished as a babe with pure milk
the great breast from which they worlds suck life.
– Jacob of Serug, “Homily 1,” On the Mother of God
It is my practice when I write to refer to the Holy Spirit as “she.” Some perceive this as me being too “liberal” or “feminist.” I will admit that I think my daughter should grow up in a world in which she can not only pursue any possibility but perceive any possibility. Through gender-exclusive language, like “man,” “mankind,” and “manpower,” we encourage children and adults alike as basically male.
But that is not why I call the Holy Spirit “she.”Others know that I have done work on Sergei Bulgakov, a controversial priest who talked about God’s nature in feminine terms as “Sophia,” or “Holy Wisdom.” They assume that my use of the feminine for the Holy Spirit must have something to do with that. Of course, just because I read Bulgakov does not mean I agree with everything Bulgakov says. To my knowledge, though he talks about a close relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Mother of God, he does not call the Holy Spirit “she.”
So that is not why I call the Holy Spirit “she,” either.
I refer to the Holy Spirit in the feminine because it is so very easy for us to imagine God as basically masculine. Whenever I hear the word “God,” I picture a big, bearded man with long white robes (you know, Zeus!). I call the Holy Spirit “she” to help banish such idols from my intellect.
In other words, I call the Holy Spirit “she” in order to be as Orthodox as possible.
Sometimes, by trying hard not to appear “feminist” (or something), we end up downplaying the richness of the biblical and Orthodox tradition, which is full of feminine images for God.
The Old Testament describes God in masculine and feminine terms. The majority of Old Testament language for God is masculine. The Bible was written in a chauvinistic context. But this only makes feminine images for God all the more remarkable.
- In Genesis women and men are made in the image of God (see 1:27), which suggests that God is not above gender so much as God is the fullness of gender.
- In Deuteronomy God gives birth to Israel. God the Father has a womb! (See 32:18; some translations mask the feminine imagery.)
- In Isaiah God is a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children. (See 42:14 and 66:13).
- In Proverbs we encounter the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, who says of herself, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting” (Prov. 8:22-23). The church fathers and mothers understood Wisdom – Sophia – to be the Logos: God’s eternal Son.
There are other passages I could mention, but I don’t think there is any point in piling on “proof texts.” Scripture is clearly being poetic when it refers to God in feminine ways. But Scripture is also being poetic when it refers to God in masculine ways. God, in God’s essence, is unknowable. Thus we are left only with metaphor.
Syrian Christianity called the Holy Spirit “she.” Syriac is one of those languages that has gendered pronouns. Their word for the Holy Spirit is feminine. Of course, those familiar with gendered nouns in other languages would point out that just because a noun is feminine does not mean it is actually thought of in a feminine way. That may be true for a language like German. Just because its word for “girl” – das Mädchen – is neuter does not mean my daughter is an “it.” But some have suggested that Syrian Christianity did tend to think of feminine nouns in more feminine ways (possibly because the language lacks neuter nouns; everything is either masculine or feminine).
But that is a bit beside the point. Syrian theology has a long tradition of poetic “gender bending” when it comes to God. Thus Jacob of Serug (quoted above) called the Son the great breast nourishing the cosmos itself.
Incidentally, when Orthodox theology first began responding to calls for the ordination of women, prominent theologians like Fr. Thomas Hopko and Paul Evdokimov argued that women corresponded to the Holy Spirit, who was feminine in the Godhead. Because the Holy Spirit “hides” behind the Son in the history of salvation, women must not take a prominent role in the Divine Liturgy.
I am not being nearly so literal when I call the Holy Spirit “she.” Critics of Fr. Hopko and Evdokimov pointed out that their argument tended to be too literal and thus too tritheistic (I do not know about Evdokimov, but I know Hopko has modified his position). For me, calling the Holy Spirit “she” is an exercise in personal apophasis.
Orthodox theology demands we unthink God. Apophaticism is the ideal of Orthodox theology. It is the recognition that our language and thoughts about God are ultimately means toward an experience of God. To fall in love with God is like falling in love with a person. Deep love between a couple is characterized both by familiarity and a respect for mystery. A long marriage is like a dance. The couple moves together – as one – without thinking or reflecting on it. Yet at the same time each has a deep respect for the mystery of her or his partner, a depth to her or his inner life that we know we can never possibly comprehend.
That is why the ideal for the Orthodox Christian is to unsay everything we say about God. This does not mean we practice double-speak, saying God is a Father and is not a Father. Rather, we tend to do what Jacob of Serug did, and what Scripture does: we mix our metaphors. Scripture defaults to masculine language because of when it was written, but it robs that language of meaning. God the Father has a womb and becomes a Mother to Israel. The Father also begets his daughter Sophia, who is the Eternal Son. The Son is masculine groom to his bride, the feminine church, which is also his body.
If thinking this way of thinking upsets our sensibilities, good! God does that.
When the mind tries to think two things that cannot be thought together (like how God is one and three), it glimpses the mystery of eternal. It does not comprehend that mystery, but it does help us participate in it.
Therefore, when I call the Holy Spirit “she,” I am not saying the Holy Spirit is a “girl.” I am saying I am a fallen man, and I need the metaphor-mixing tradition of the Eastern mystics in order to inject a little transcendent reality into my ever-present intellectual idolatry.
Some Selected Readings
On God and Gender